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Leadership Wisdom – The Problem of Persecution (Part 1)

October 29, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Matthew 5:10-12 (NIV)

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Focus

In a fearful and paranoid culture, how do we avoid an unwarranted persecution complex?

Devotion

We live in a culture that increasingly traffics in fear and anxiety. Even if we can’t figure out exactly who the culprits are, we believe that someone, somewhere, is out to get us. And even if some think we are being paranoid, we might argue as Joseph Heller did in his novel, Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you!” We may be wrong in the particulars, but surely we are right to be fearful and anxious.

Jeremiah Thrown into a Prison by the People of King Zedekiah (Marc Chagall, 1956)

Jeremiah Thrown into a Prison by the People of King Zedekiah (Marc Chagall, 1956)

Politically, our culture has been polarized into visibly warring camps. Each side sees the other as implacable enemies who are out to do them in. In our Christian churches, a similar division has hardened into unyielding sides. Ironically, identifying our cause with God’s mission causes us to be even more virulent in our conflict with one another than our secular colleagues. As Elton Trueblood insightfully observed, “religious enemies are the fiercest there are.”

So today, how are we to hear Jesus’ words about being persecuted? How do we avoid an unwarranted persecution complex, “an irrational and obsessive feeling or fear that one is the object of collective hostility or ill-treatment on the part of others?” (Oxford Languages)

There are three phrases in Jesus’ last Beatitude which helps me understand the distinctive nature of the persecution Jesus is describing.

First, Jesus describes persecution that is “because of righteousness.” As I have noted before, “righteousness” is not just moral behavior per se (although that is included), but it is at its root about “covenant faithfulness.” It means a way of life that seeks to love God and neighbor. It seeks the peace and well-being (in Hebrew, shalom) of the community one lives in, even at a cost to oneself. Notice how that connects with Jesus’ immediately prior Beatitude about peacemakers being the children of God.

Second, Jesus describes persecution that is “because of me.” Israel’s understanding of what it means to live in “covenant faithfulness” or “righteousness” is reimagined in Jesus’ own life and teaching. As the rest of the Sermon on the Mount will make clear, Jesus raises the stakes for what it means to be truly human. Jesus might very well have said to his generation, like the lead character in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, “Your best is not good enough!” Jesus embodies (and teaches) a way of life that is radically generous, hospitable, and sacrificial – a “righteousness (that) surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Matthew 5:20, NIV). Ironically, persecution ensues because people are threatened by the appearance of the God of self-sacrificial love they claim to worship.

And that brings us, thirdly, to Jesus describing persecution “the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The ancient Hebrew prophets were charged with telling people what was good and what was true. And when people don’t like the truth, the only option they have left is to lie. When people oppose what is good, the only option left is to engage in “all kinds of evil.” As the Apostle John wrote, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people love darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20, NIV). As Israel’s prophets learned long ago, living and telling the truth often results in violent opposition. Jesus reminds us that we should expect no less, whether in the first century or in the 21st.

But, in that context, Jesus says something astonishing and countercultural. Instead of becoming fearful and anxious at the prospect of persecution, and retreating to our corners to prepare for “the final battle,” Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad.” And here’s why:

  1. Be glad that you are already on the right side of truth and history. “Great is your reward in heaven.”
  2. Be glad that you are identified with Jesus. “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29, NIV).
  3. And be glad that your suffering is bearing good fruit in the world. As the Apostle Paul said, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NIV).

Jesus’ vision of persecution and of our rightful response to it couldn’t be more different from our contemporary paranoia, conspiracy theories, and persecution complexes. Instead of evoking fear, anxiety, and hatred, Jesus calls us to respond with faith, hope, and love.

Tomorrow, we will look at how we might live out faithful leadership in our predominantly secular contexts. For now, consider the following questions:

Reflect

In what ways has your life reflected “covenant faithfulness”? In what ways has Jesus’ life and teachings caused you to live differently?

How have others treated you negatively because of your commitment to Christ? How have you responded?

Act

Do an intentional act of kindness towards someone you feel has treated you badly because of your way of life.

Pray

Lord Jesus Christ,

In a polarized and divided world, we are grateful for your work of reconciliation. We are grateful that you are at work to create one new, united human family, with you as our exemplary eldest sibling.

Help us to live faithfully in word and deed, to honor you who are the Way, the Truth and the Life.

We ask in your name, Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: “Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake” (Matt 5:10)


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One thought on “Leadership Wisdom – The Problem of Persecution (Part 1)

  1. David says:

    It is disheartening to read references about a secular world, this is God’s world and as such all in His including our places of work. Leadership on how to live our faith in our place our work is vital as Christians we are to make a difference persecuted or not.

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